NCOC Featured Discussion

Celebrating 90 Years of Women’s Suffrage

by Elisabeth MacNamara, League of Women Voters

August 26, 2010
The midterm election season isn't just heating up —it's reached a fever pitch. Pollsters are poring over the numbers and pundits are peering into their crystal balls in the hopes of forecasting Election Night headlines. Meanwhile, candidates up and down the ballot in all fifty states will spend these final weeks pressing the flesh and buying up airtime with one goal in mind: turning out the most supporters on November 2.

In the midst of all the seat-counting, party politicking and never-ending policy quarrels, it might be easy to pass over a little-known holiday that nevertheless has had enormous implications on the political landscape of our country.

Women's Equality Day, observed on August 26th, will mark the 90th anniversary of the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. As we approach what could be a pivotal Election Day, it's worth taking a moment to consider the impact the suffrage movement continues to have all these decades later.

What Can Modern-Day Civic Leaders Learn from the Suffrage Movement?

The road to victory in achieving women's suffrage —150 years in the making —was fraught by near-impossible political odds, often hostile public opinion, and considerable strategy disagreements between key suffragists. Many of us are familiar with the mass acts of civil disobedience, White House pickets, hunger strikes and intense backroom negotiations that marked the movement. Some have heard the story that after years of struggle, ratification in the deciding state, Tennessee, was made possible only because the tie-breaking legislator received word from his mother urging him to vote on the right side of history.

Often overlooked, though, is the fact that the suffrage movement served as a testing ground for many of the grassroots mobilization and civic engagement strategies still widely in use today. Regardless of their background or scope of interest, modern-day civic leaders can learn some fundamental lessons from the suffragists:

First, seek to always attract new voices to your cause.

''I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.'' --Suffragist Alice Paul

It was through its 'mosaic' approach that the suffrage movement was able to bring together a diverse cadre of supporting —and at times, unlikely—voices. In a recent article covering the suffrage-era roots of my organization, the League of Women Voters, author Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr. discusses the critical role played by women representing a variety of age groups and geographic regions. In particular, he notes that Maud Wood Park, upon recognizing a surprising lack of young women at suffrage meetings, began mobilizing college-age women in order to bridge the age gap.

Furthermore, Cooney notes that it was in many cases male voters who provided the public and electoral support necessary to enfranchise women in key states. Their support added to the groundswell of pro-suffrage voices and greatly contributed to the movement's political feasibility.

Second, think broadly—but act locally.

While some individuals and local suffrage organizations were successful in promoting electoral equality early on in the movement, it wasn't until women self-organized into localized units unified by a nationwide message and supported through an organized national-state-local structure that they succeeded in establishing the critical mass needed to achieve suffrage. In doing so, they gave future grassroots movements a roadmap for success.

Just as we have seen in many modern pushes for reform, suffragists adopted a strategy to simultaneously seek full suffrage through a constitutional amendment while also pursuing state-based suffrage and other incremental steps forward. As Gail Collins' recent New York Times column shows, the long road to victory also included efforts to get state political parties, governors, and a range of state and federal legislators on board and on record in support of suffrage.

This multi-pronged approach allowed for an ever-growing number of victories, and by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified nationwide, women had been voting in some local and state jurisdictions for nearly fifty years.

Finally, victory is only the beginning.

As we now know, the adoption of the 19th Amendment marked the beginning, not the end, of the women's rights movement in this country. Suffragists did not pack up and go home after attaining the vote. In fact, many considered it a personal responsibility to take up the work of educating, empowering, and most importantly, turning out all the newly enfranchised women voters they had fought for.

Even before the passage of the 19th Amendment, preeminent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt founded a nonpartisan, nonprofit grassroots organization with the mission of ''finishing the fight'' and providing a forum for civically engaged women. That organization, the League of Women Voters, is still mobilizing citizens in more than 800 communities nationwide.

Another suffrage leader, Alice Paul, would go on to author and propose the first Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. And Jeannette Rankin, a Montana suffragist and the first woman to serve in Congress, spent the next fifty years lobbying for issues including peace, women and children's access to healthcare and income, and civil liberties.

The work of these notable women, and the contributions of many, many more, have helped ensure that the fight for a level playing field did not end when women won the right to vote. From their lasting public policy legacy to the opportunities they ushered in for modern-day women, their impact can still be felt today.

Where do we go next?

A lot has changed since the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Women have had a lasting political impact at the ballot box and in the halls of power. They have outnumbered men at the voting booth in every major election since 1964 and turned out in the largest percentage difference ever (60.4%, vs. 55.7% of men) during the 2008 election.

Women have also made a lasting impact in public service, running and being elected to all levels of office and serving in a wide array of cabinet and other leadership positions. And, Sen. Hillary Clinton's competitive, yet ultimately unsuccessful, run for her party's 2008 presidential nomination eliminated questions about whether a woman could become Commander in Chief.

With every passing year, women are also reaching new levels of leadership in the private sector. With higher-than-ever education rates and opportunities for career advancement, women face unprecedented options when choosing how and where to excel. This has translated into many more women in leadership roles on Main Street as well as on Capitol Hill.

Despite the incredible strides made by women in the last several generations, there remain very real barriers to full equality:
  • Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, maintaining an unfair balance in the workplace and, according to President Obama, adding undue stress on the U.S. economy.
  • Only 15 Fortune 500 companies are run by women (although, Bloomberg reported in April that women who do reach CEO status tend to earn more than men).
  • Women remain severely underrepresented in elected leadership, holding only about 17 percent of seats in both the House and Senate. These gaps grow disproportionately wider for women of color (see more facts about women in office at Rutgers' Center for American Women in Politics).
Women are still a long way from attaining full equality, but there are opportunities for improvement.

First, civically engaged women and men must continue to advocate for family-friendly policies and workplace protections to close existing gaps, especially for women of color and low-income women.

Second, women across the political spectrum must continue to seek and be granted access to funds, training, and political support so that they can run—and win—campaigns for elected office. The 2010 Census will usher in redistricting across the country in 2011, allowing for the creation of new voting districts and open-seat races, a scenario proven to provide more opportunities for women candidates.

Finally, all of us must continue to recognize the responsibility we have to build stronger communities and a democracy that is truly representative of all Americans.

Active citizenship means voting in elections, participating in community improvement, and holding our leaders accountable. Suffragists, civil rights leaders, and many more struggled for decades so that we could have those rights. It is our job to exercise them.



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Elisabeth MacNamara is the President of the League of Women Voters of the United States
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3 Comments
By Eleanor Pickron at 11:38 AM on Aug 26th, 2010
Perspective is critical--it helps us develop true resolve. Along the same lines, check out our LWV video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InbVhhCAqJo
By Gina Kimmons at 10:38 AM on Nov 10th, 2011
I'm doing the History Fair and i was wondering if there are any experts on Woman's suffrage out there that wouldn't mind to be interviewed or quoted....it would be much appreciated....If you can please let me know.
By Naomi H. and Carmen E. at 12:51 PM on Nov 21st, 2011
Hi, we are doing a project for NHD (national History Day) and we were wondering if you could give us a interview for more information on woman's suffrage. It can be a email interview if you like or a phone call.
Thanks you,
Naomi and carmen
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